Breaking the Itch-Scratch Cycle

One of the biggest, most difficult, but most important things to do in eczema is to break that dastardly itch-scratch cycle.

It goes like this – you scratch an area that’s bothering you.  It then flares up and gets scabbed, because if you’re like me with eczema, you scratch pretty damn hard.  You then subconsciously continue to itch it, because now it’s dry and scabbed while it’s healing.  Then it never gets to heal.  Then you feel bad about yourself and just say ‘What the heck, I am covered in gross rashes so a little more itching will not make any difference’.

These are the things that one must realize for itchy eczema sufferers –

If you are a loved one of someone with eczema, yelling at them to “STOP ITCHING” is not going to do any good.  I’ve been through this with my husband shouting at me as I was scratching away!  This makes it seem like it’s the eczema sufferer’s fault for being itchy.  IT IS NOT!  You are not a bad person to have these constant annoying skin sensations that make you want to scratch.  That being said, it CAN be helpful for loved ones to notice itching and gently provide verbal or physical reminders that not only make the eczema sufferer pause and think about not itching, but actually NOTICE that they’re itching.  Maybe you redirect their attention, maybe you gently grab their hand, maybe you hug them, maybe you gently point out not to itch, maybe you say “Itch ME instead”!  (This tactic was a big favorite of my husband’s, who loves having his back scratched – every time I was feeling itchy, I was to give him a good back scratch instead).  I also started using the tactic of vigorously rubbing the area instead of itching, to provide that tactile sensation without tearing up the skin.  I’ve also heard of people using ice cubes or cold and then hot materials to kind of ‘confuse’ the skin’s receptors.

Understand also that eczema sufferers get a special kind of release/relief from itching.  I don’t know what it is about that damn eczema, but to finally scratch an itch can just feel SO GOOD!  I’ve excused myself from social situations or work, quietly went to a bathroom stall, and just itch itch itched away because it’s such a welcoming sensation for an eczema sufferer.

HOWEVER.  I’ve been itching so much lately (no thanks also to the cold dry air of outside, and then the pumped-in heated warm dry air inside) that I NEED to break the itch-scratch cycle.  I’ve got a daily ritual of coming home, removing all work clothes (I HATE wearing work clothes – I’m a big slob at heart LOL), and just sitting on the floor and giving myself (my legs, mainly) a good, deep scratch.

This isn’t good for me, though, and my skin is showing the wear of it.  Steroid creams can help some, because they can clear up a scabbed patch and then it’s not all dry and itchy as it heals, but then the flares usually return.

I HAVE tried doing meditation via the John Kabat-Zinn CDs – to try and calm my mind and help me focus away from the itching.  I’m such a restless person naturally that these didn’t work for me and I was unable to settle down (I’m exactly the kind of person that probably needs these) but I will try them again as I think the mind can be a very powerful thing in diverting our attention away from physical annoyances and pains.  I also have a tiny Slinky at my desk at work that I constantly am playing with, just to have that tactile sensation as a substitute for itching.

But, I need suggestions from you, dear blog readers and eczema sufferers.  What tactics have worked for you to try and break the itch-scratch cycle?


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8 thoughts on “Breaking the Itch-Scratch Cycle

  1. Celiac and Allergy Adventures says:

    Meditation has never helped calm my mind. I’m too high strung for that! haha. When I’m scratching in my sleep, my boyfriend usually rubs my back or grabs my hand gently so I don’t wake up – that usually stops me. During the day, no one can stop me. I’m totally defiant to any efforts because you’re right – it is so relieving to do it. Benadryl cream helps more than any other OTC product to stop itchiness. Other than that, I just take Benadryl and wait for it to hopefully kick in. As a kid I used to take Atarax whenever I had “itch attacks” and that seemed to help too.

    • I will have to look into the Benadryl cream… I mean I know about Benadryl medication, but I didn’t know they made a cream! Doesn’t taking Benadryl orally make you super sleepy though? I’ve taken those before and felt completely exhausted… no good for being at work or school, maybe good overnight though. Although maybe they have a non-drowsy type? Never heard of Atarax either… Thanks for those suggestions to try!

      • Celiac and Allergy Adventures says:

        Yes, it does make me super sleepy, so I usually take it before bed to help prevent scratching at night. However, when I’m really bad, I tend to develop a tolerance to it and don’t really feel the effects of the sleepiness! 🙂 Atarax probably also makes you sleepy. I don’t even know if doctors prescribe it anymore! There is also a lotion that they sell at regular drug stores – not sure if it’s safe for you, and it smells kind of gross – but it’s called Sarna. It used to be prescription-only but now it’s available OTC. That also helps with itchiness!

  2. Krystle says:

    Heyy, I actually haven’t figured out how to break the dreaded cycle yet but I had to comment as soon as I saw you mention how steroids “help” – I’m not sure if you’re aware but you should reeeeallyyyy not use steroids at all. I know doctors will only tell you that they MAY cause skin thinning with long term use but the reality can be far far worse – trust me, I’m living it. Even a small amount of steroid used regularly can cause your body to become addicted to it – for example you said the eczema seems to come back afterward? If you’ve been using steroids intermittently for a while, the eczema returning like that (often intensified) is what is called ‘rebound’ – the skin is crying out for more steroid. Before I talk your ear off, even if you don’t use steroids that often, google ‘topical steroid addiction’. Anyways, best of luck with breaking the cycle – I’ll let you know if I find anything that works 🙂

    • Hi Krystle – This post you commented on is actually quite an older post of mine from 2012 – I had since discovered that I did have topical steroid addiction, lived through the hellish itching, oozing, flaring, redness, burning, and all that stuff, and came out the other side and now my skin is nearly healed! Thank you for your take as someone who is living it and I hope you are continuing to heal!!

      • Genevieve says:

        I was just wondering how you went about beating your topical steroid addiction, I feel I am at a similar place to what you have described above. Desperate to find something that works!

  3. Hi Genevieve – Honestly the only thing that heals topical steroid addiction is simply time and patience. I don’t feel that I did anything special to speed up the healing, I just tried to make myself and my skin comfortable and waited it out. I was desperate to speed it up too, but now that I am healed all that bad stuff is a pretty distant memory even though it was just months ago. The good thing is that no matter what, all true topical steroid addiction will heal and resolve with time if you stop using steroids! There are many other posts on this blog about my topical steroid addiction and stuff that I used, you may find other helpful info there. Good luck and speedy healing to you!

  4. Michael Griffin says:


    I know this is an old post, but I’d feel terrible if I didn’t chime in. You need to see a DO, a doctor of osteopathy, who will test you for underlying causes of your eczema (intestinal permeability AKA Leaky Gut, thyroid issues, adrenal dysfunction, stress levels, lymphatic system, allergies etc). I’ve gained incredible, incredible insight into my body since seeing my own DO, and learned so much about how my immune system works.

    Eczema is not something you just have for no reason, and it’s not some incurable disease. It’s simply a symptom of something going wrong inside your body, mainly a dysfunctional immune system. My own skin has gotten 98 percent better since I’ve learned how the immune system works and how to heal it. I’ve still got some problems with the itch-scratch cycle though, and that’s what brought me to this post. Healing eczema takes time, but there are some things you can do to immediately improve it.

    I’ve had incredible success by using quercetin to relieve itching and block histamine from releasing. Also, a diamine oxidase (DAO) supplement is beneficial to break down the histamine that’s already there, which may improve the rash itself. Also, you MUST stay as far away from stress, gluten and allergies as possible, because they only further aggravate Leaky Gut. In addition, you MUST move your lymphatic system and make sure toxins are being taken care of on a daily basis.

    I really hope this helps. I literally can’t stand when people talk about eczema as if it’s something that’s out of their hands. PLEASE see a doctor of osteopathy, and for the love of all that is holy, stay FAR away from dermatologists. The problem isn’t your skin; it’s your immune system.

    I hope this reaches someone.

    Best regards,
    Michael Griffin

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